Through MITx on edX, OpenCourseWare, and Residential MITx, the Office of Digital Learning (ODL) facilitates a wide range of experiments and enables distillation of research results from an unprecedented flood of online data, in many ways. The results of our research efforts inform and guide our digital learning efforts on campus and beyond.

Institutional research

ODL conducts instructional research for MIT on open as well as on-campus online learning. 

On January 21, 2014, a joint research team from Harvard University and MIT released a series of reports describing the first year of open online courses launched on edX, a non-profit learning platform founded by the two institutions in 2012. These reports documented the backgrounds and behaviors of course registrants and highlighted pedagogical and technological innovations that serve as resources for online, residential, and blended teaching.

We have recently released a “Year 2” report, in which we revisit these earlier findings with the benefit of an additional year of data, resulting in one of the largest surveys of massive open online courses (MOOCs) to date: 68 courses, 1.7 million participants, 10 million participant-hours, and 1.1 billion logged events. 

MITx and HarvardX Year 2 report image


ODL also studies how MIT students employ the residential MITx system in courses on campus, in collaboration with the Institutional Research section of the Office of the Provost, as well as with academic departments. These results guide MIT in the deployment of institutional resources toward the advancement of ODL’s core mission.

Support of research and education groups

ODL works closely with research groups that develop new assessment technologies, simulations, and modalities for global education. For example, we work with the HHMI Education Group in MIT Biology to bring biological simulations to students, with the MIT BLOSSOMS (Blended Learning Open Source Science or Math Studies) effort to encourage blended learning worldwide, and the Scheller Teacher Education Program to reach out to teachers in the K12 space. These efforts are bringing the best of online learning, computer games and interactive simulations to students on campus. We also help groups extend these technologies to a worldwide audience through MITx on edX. For example, in 2014, ODL Engineering helped Professor Kerry Emanuel deploy a sophisticated simulation of the earth’s atmosphere, for his course on edX, 12.340x Global Warming Science.

MITx Learner Data

ODL partners with the Institutional Research section of the Office of the Provost to make learner data from MITx on edX courses to research groups within MIT and outside MIT. This enables groups such as the Teaching and Learning Lab (TLL), Research in Learning, Assessing, and Tutoring Effectively (RELATE), and the ALFA Group to conduct A/B experiments, and to analyze learner data, developing insights about questions such as who the worldwide MITx learners are, how they learn, and how they use the material in online learning. See the procedures for obtaining data access.


Research policy and directions

ODL staff play a key role in institutional efforts such as the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education. In addition to participating in these efforts (Professor Sarma served as co-chair of this task force, and Professor Sarma, Professor Chuang, and Dr. Kumar served as members), ODL provides data and analyses to inform the deliberations of the group. ODL also helps lead and shape MIT policy on online learner data and privacy, including our participation in the Asilomar Convention for Learning Research in Higher Education, Recently, MIT launched the Online Education Policy Initiative (OEPI), which is co-chaired by Professors Sanjay Sarma and Karen Willcox. Funded in part by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the OEPI seeks to add to the national conversation on online education and its implications.

Catalyzing new research collaborations

ODL implements new digital learning initiatives and creates new collaborations that are of strategic interest to MIT. For example, one of the recommendations of the Institute-wide Task Force was to create a K12 initiative. At the request of the Provost, ODL convened colleagues who have research and personal interests in this area – from the Engineering School, the Media Lab, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Science.

Convening researchers

ODL presents the xTalks series at MIT – a regular seminar which bringing researchers and creators of digital learning together from across campus and beyond. xTalks are digital discourses jointly organized by ODL, the HHMI-supported Education Group, the RELATE group and the TLL. In addition, MITx and HarvardX hold weekly joint research meetings at Harvard, which convenes MITx and HarvardX Research Fellows and experts from around the world on challenges and opportunities in online learning.

Applying digital-learning research on campus

Perhaps the most important research activity of the ODL is to apply lessons to what we do at MIT: residential learning. This feedback loop is an essential conduit for continuous improvement and eventual transformation. Our primary method for guiding innovation is through the Residential MITx team within the ODL, which supports faculty in their development and implementation of new pedagogical ideas. We also seek to instigate a campus-wide revolution in online learning, for example, via the MITx Special Interest Group (SIGx), which brings together practitioners of MITx from within campus, each semester, to distill lessons learned and to build the future of online learning at MIT.